Factsheet: The Social Model of Disability

14th September 2015

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The Social Model of Disability (Inclusion London)

The Social Model of Disability, developed over the last 40 years by Disabled people, is a radically different Model to the Medical and Charitable approach to disability. It states that people have impairments but that the oppression, exclusion and discrimination people with impairments face is not an inevitable consequence of having an impairment, but is caused instead by the way society is run and organised.

The Social Model of Disability holds that people with impairments are ‘disabled’ by the barriers operating in society that exclude and discriminate against them.

Above is a diagram of the Social Model of Disability that shows some of the thinking and assumptions of this Model.

The Social Model not only identifies society as the cause of disability but, equally importantly, it provides a way of explaining how society goes about disabling people with impairments. Sometimes referred to as a “barriers-approach”, the Social Model provides a “route map” that identifies both the barriers that disable people with impairments and how these barriers can be removed, minimised or countered by other forms of support.

Key disabling barriers from a Social Model approach include:

Attitudinal barriers

These are social and cultural attitudes and assumptions about people with impairments that explain, justify and perpetuate prejudice, discrimination and exclusion in society; for example, assumptions that people with certain impairments can’t work, can’t be independent, can’t have sex, shouldn’t have children, need protecting, are “child-like”, are “ dangerous”, should not be seen because they are upsetting, are scroungers, etc.

Physical barriers

These are barriers linked to the physical and built environment, and cover a huge range of barriers that prevent equal access, such as stairs/ steps, narrow corridors and doorways, kerbs, inaccessible toilets, inaccessible housing, poor lighting, poor seating, broken lifts or poorly managed street and public spaces.

Information/Communication Barriers

These are barriers linked to information and communication, such as lack of British Sign Language interpreters for Deaf people, lack of provision of hearing induction loops, lack of information in different accessible formats such as Easy Read, plain English and large font.

Barriers “disable” by creating exclusion, discrimination and disadvantage for people with impairments.

The Social Model, in highlighting the barrier, often simultaneously identifies the solution to the barrier; for example:

Barrier: The intercom in a block flats does not have a video camera, therefore Deaf/hard of hearing residents cannot establish who is seeking entry.

Solution: Install an intercom system with video for Deaf and hard of hearing residents.

Additional benefits: Elderly people and other people who may feel vulnerable feel more secure in the accommodation.

Likewise, from a Social Model perspective, to enable Disabled people to achieve genuine independent living requires a range of support to be in place in society to counter the effects of discrimination and oppression. These are known as the ‘pillars of independent living’, which are:

  • Appropriate and accessible information
  • An adequate income
  • Appropriate and accessible health and social care provision
  • A fully accessible transport system
  • Full access to the environment
  • Adequate provision of technical aids and equipment
  • Availability of accessible and adapted housing
  • Adequate provision of personal assistance
  • Availability of inclusive education and training
  • Equal opportunities for employment
  • Availability of independent advocacy and self-advocacy
  • Availability of peer counselling

The Social Model of Disability is dynamic and effective in that it focuses on barriers and solutions to such barriers and, in doing so, maps out an approach to inclusion and equality that is of benefit to society as a whole, not just Disabled people.

Click here for further information on the Social Model of Disability via the Inclusion London website

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